How do sects react when prophecies are not fulfilled?
Yesterday I was watching the APM zapping program! with some friends when, at a certain moment, Álvaro Ojeda, a well-known Internet "opinador", appeared on the screen. Ojeda has become known, among other things, for the vehemence with which he defends his ideas: screams, hits the table he uses to record his videos and always seems to drag a bad temper . In addition, as often touches issues related to politics and uses a little worked argument and associated with the propaganda of the Spanish conservative right, outside the circles of people who think as he usually gives the image of being the classic bar counter opinion who speaks without having much idea of anything. For sample, a button.
The point is that one of my friends did not know Álvaro Ojeda, and he took it for granted that he was a fictitious character created by Catalan television to give a bad image of the conservatives using a lot of stereotypes about them. When we explained that Catalan television had nothing to do with Álvaro Ojeda's rise to fame and that, in fact, he has a lot of followers for his social networks, not only did he not believe us but he was even more scandalized the idea that a means of communication could direct from the shadows such a convoluted plan only to leave a part of the population of Spain wrong. Someone who normally attends to reasons had just embraced a theory of conspiracy invented at that time by himself.
The reason was, probably, that having identified Álvaro Ojeda with stereotypes about conservative Spain in front of all of us, recognizing that he is not a fictional character and that he has become famous for the support many people give him would mean admitting that these stereotypes describe a part of the population quite well. Somehow, he was chained to what he had said before, and he was not able to assimilate information that contradicted his initial ideas .
Leon Festinger and cognitive dissonance
This anecdote is an example of what social psychologist Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance. The term cognitive dissonance refers to the state of tension and discomfort that occurs in us when we hold at the same time two conflicting beliefs , or when our interpretation of the facts we experience does not fit well with the most deeply rooted beliefs. But the interesting thing about cognitive dissonance is not so much the subjective state of discomfort it brings us, but what it leads us to do.
As the state of light stress that produces us is unpleasant and we want to reduce this tension, we try to make the dissonance disappear in one way or another. And, although this may be an important learning and reflection engine, many times we throw with the short way and "we cheat" to show that the contradiction between beliefs is not real , which can lead us to deny the evidence, as we have seen in the previous example. In fact, accommodating the evidence to fit our belief system well without causing too much trouble not only does not occur exceptionally, but could be a law of life, judging by Festinger's discoveries. In this article you can see some examples of this.
So that, Cognitive dissonance is something everyday, and often plays against our intellectual honesty . But ... what happens when we not only cheat to neutralize beliefs in a timely manner? In other words, how do you react when the cognitive dissonance is so strong that it threatens to destroy the belief system upon which all our life has been built? This is what Leon Festinger and his team wanted to find out in the early 1950s when they set out to study the way in which a small sect faced disappointment.
Messages from outer space
In the fifties, an American apocalyptic sect called "The Seekers" (The Seekers) spread the message that the world was going to be destroyed on December 21, 1954 . Supposedly, this information had been transmitted to the members of the sect through Dorothy Martin, alias Marian Keech, a woman who was credited with the ability to write chains of words of alien or supernatural origin. The fact that the members of the fanatical group believed in the authenticity of these messages was one of the reasons why the religious beliefs of the whole community were reinforced, and as it happens classically with the cults of this type, life of each of its members revolved around the needs and objectives of the community.
Being part of the cult required significant investments of time, effort and money, but apparently all this was worth it; According to the telepathic messages that Keech received, dedicating oneself in body and soul to the sect supposed to have guaranteed salvation hours before the apocalypse reached the planet Earth. Basically, spaceships were going to arrive that would transport them to a safe place while the world was upholstered with corpses .
Festinger and the members of his team decided to contact the members of the sect to document the way they would react when the time came or the end of life on earth would occur and no flying saucer would appear in the sky. They expected to find an extreme case of cognitive dissonance not only because of the importance that the sect had for the members of the cult, but also because of the significant fact that, when they learned the day of the apocalypse, they had said goodbye to everything that united them. Planet: houses, cars, and other belongings.
The end of the world that did not arrive
Of course, the ark of alien Noah did not arrive. Nor was there any indication that the world was breaking down. The members of the sect remained silent in the house of Marian Keech for hours while Festinger and his collaborators remained infiltrated in the group. At a time when despair was palpable in the environment, Keech reported that he had received another message from the planet Clarion: the world had been saved at the last minute thanks to the faith of the Seekers . A sacred entity had decided to forgive the life of humanity thanks to the dedication of the sect.
This obscurantist collective had not only given new meaning to the breach of prophecy. He also had one more reason to work on his assignments. Although some members of the collective left it out of pure disappointment, those who remained showed a greater degree of cohesion and began to defend their ideas more radically, to spread their speeches and to seek greater visibility. And all this from the day after the false apocalypse. Marian Keech, in particular, continued being part of this type of cults until his death in 1992.
The case of the Seekers and the apocalypse of 1954 is included in the book When Profecy Fails, written by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter. At An interpretation of the facts is offered, relating them to the theory of cognitive dissonance .
The members of the sect had to fit two ideas: that the end of the world was going to happen the night before, and that the world continued to exist after that moment. But the cognitive dissonance generated by this situation did not lead them to renounce their beliefs. Simply, They accommodated the new information they had available to make it fit into their schemes, devoting as much effort to this readjustment as the tension produced by the dissonance was strong. . That is to say, the fact that they had been examining a whole belief system for a long time had not served to make them more informed, but had made them incapable of recognizing the failure of their ideas, something that entails making more sacrifices.
As the members of the sect had made many sacrifices for the community and the belief system that was held in it, the maneuver to accommodate the contradictory information with the initial ideas also had to be very radical . The cult members began to believe much more in their ideas not because they proved to explain reality better, but because of the efforts that had been made previously to keep these beliefs afloat.
Since the 1950s, the explanatory model of cognitive dissonance has been very useful in explaining the internal functioning of sects and collectives linked to obscurantism and divination. In them, group members are required to make sacrifices that at first seem unjustified, but that could make sense given that their very existence could be the glue that holds the community together.
Of course, it is not easy to identify too much with people who believe in apocalypse orchestrated by alien forces and mediums who have telepathic contacts with the high spheres of intergalactic reign, but there is something in the story of Marian Keech and his followers who intuitively , we can relate to our day to day. Although it seems that the consequences of our actions and decisions have to do with the way in which we change our environment and our circumstances (whether or not we have a university degree, whether or not to buy that house, etc.), we can also say that what We are building an ideological framework that keeps us tied to beliefs, without the ability to maneuver among them in a rational way.
This, by the way, is not something that happens only in sects. In fact, it is very easy to find a link between the functioning of cognitive dissonance and the way in which they hold political and philosophical ideologies in an uncritical way: Karl Popper has already pointed out for some time that certain explanatory schemes of reality, such as psychoanalysis They are so ambiguous and flexible that they never seem to contradict the facts. That is why the case study on the Marian Keech sect is so valuable: the conclusions that can be drawn from it go beyond the typical functioning of apolcalyptic cults.
To know that we can fall so easily into a kind of fundamentalism through dissonance is, of course, an uncomfortable idea. In the first place because it makes us realize that we could be blindly carrying ideas and beliefs that are in fact a drag. But, especially, because the psychological mechanism studied by Festinger can lead us to think that we are not free to act rationally as people who have no commitments to certain causes . As judges who can distance themselves from what happens to them and decide what is the most reasonable way out of situations. For something is that, in social psychology, each time less is believed in the rationality of the human being.